• Jeff Brenneman

Do I really have to feel it? Can't I just ignore it?

I’m tired. It was hard to get out of bed this morning. I put off taking a shower. I drug my feet a bit getting ready and getting out the door. Now, I’m at the office and I don’t really want to do anything. I think I feel a little down. Yesterday was a hard day, dealing with some heavy topics throughout the day.


I have a sense of overwhelm about today, and as I make a list of things to do today it’s not actually that long a list.

I have a couple of decisions to make. One is whether I will let the thought pattern that seems to be producing that sense of overwhelm take over. I’ve let it take over many times in the past. You probably have, at times, as well.

I’ve had entire days where I dreaded the next thing and just made it through without really paying much attention. Days where each thing was something I did not want to do. When I get to that place, it’s not just the emotion that is causing me difficulty. It’s my emotions and thoughts playing together and making each other more intense. There’s a little protection that’s going on there. If I shut down or get out of control, either one, I don’t have to deal with the ‘unacceptable’ feelings that I have. I get to participate in something else entirely. That doesn't mean they go away, but I don’t have to deal with them right now.

So, the avoidance pays off right now. And I feel just a little better. Long term, it doesn’t work, and sometimes I have difficulty thinking about the long term. Those feelings we avoid, however, end up coming back to haunt us after they build up with other emotions and thoughts.


Today, however, I have the long term in mind. I'm sitting in a wise mind place and really want to be effective. I don’t want the self judgment thoughts and the guilt and shame that will come from avoiding today.


Nothing I'm currently experiencing is very intense, so I don't need any of the 'crisis survival' skills to bring down the intensity. I can just get to the experiencing skills.


Time for mindfulness of current emotion and opposite to emotion action. What I am feeling this morning and then the intensity that the thoughts are adding doesn’t seem to be super appropriate to my situation.

I have some sadness that I notice. This emotion does fit the facts of my situation. So, I’m going to feel what’s there. There’s sadness about several situations from yesterday and I did not experience the sadness yesterday. I think I automatically pushed it away. So, I’m sitting (ER handout 22) just noticing what sensations there are in my body as fully as I possibly can. I pay attention to how long the feeling stays there. I feel a slight tightness in my face, a small urge for tears and a heavy feeling in my stomach. It all stays for what feels like forever, and what I’m noticing is probably more like 10-15 seconds. Then those sensations move on. I don’t know where they go, they just lift and I feel lighter.

One thing that is very important about this skill is to notice if thoughts get in the way, because they often will. AND thoughts (judgments and interpretations) will make everything more intense and will keep you stuck in the emotion. It’s only when we get mindful of the body sensations and let go of the thoughts (calling a thought a thought can let it move on and have less power over you) that I can actually experience the ‘wave’ of emotion that DBT talks about.


I sat here prepared to experience whatever emotion I had and then to do opposite action for the misplaced emotion. I’m noticing that after experiencing that sadness that there is nothing getting in my way now. It’s almost like the sadness was a block, or a stop sign, that said, ‘you aren’t doing anything until you experience me.’ Like this was the necessary step that I tried to skip.


If you are at all like me, and millions of others, you may have difficulty identifying what you feel at any given time. Your emotions may scare the *&^% out of you and you may run from feeling them. If that’s you, there is hope.



You can learn to identify and then feel your emotions. They don’t have to be super scary. And it will take practice. All of the DBT skills take practice and most of them take a LOT of practice. So, if you start to use a skill and you are 'terrible' at it, recognize that learning a new skill is hard work and take practice. And recognize that attempting a DBT skill is success no matter what happens when you practice because you took the steps to do it.


You certainly can continue to avoid and push away your emotions, lots of people do. Or you can take the scary step of trying to pay attention. If you take that step, it just might turn out much better than you think.


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